Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pompous Twits tasting: "Mac's New Wineries of the East Bay"

Tasting report by Mac McCarthy

It was a tough month for an event, even with such a promising theme – a mere 11 of our Pompous Twits were able to appear for this month's tasting event, held at the Palomares Cafe in Castro Valley, CA. 

We actually had too many wines – 17, plus a bonus starter wine from Dave Hulet, a Molyneaux that was a great start. With Dave's help, I trimmed back the wine list a bit – cutting out an Occasio Pinot Grigio and a Longevity Syrah Rose, then discovered that I had left a Longevity Merlot at home, to my disappointment. But this brought us down to a more manageable 13 wines, plus Dave Hulet's Rodrigue Molyneaux Cabernet Sauvignon from Livermore.

Here are my tasting notes, with my scores on a 10-point scale, and reference information on the wineries below. If you see errors in this report, be sure to let me know, but otherwise indulge me --  as it appears I was drinking that evening....

Bottom line: If you missed this tasting, you are sorry you did – these were mostly wonderful wines, and mostly unknown vintners to the assembled Twits, or at least untasted examples from the wineries they did know. So it achieved my goal of showing off some of the best of the new wineries from Livermore, Alameda, and Oakland. These wineries are all less than ten years old, and in some cases less than a year old.

The following tasting notes benefitted from input from John Engstrom. Tanks, John!


1.  White
Satyrs' Pond "White Wine," 2008, Pinot Grigio and Viognier blend, 12.8%, $16 (Livermore)
             Jinny Horner pronounced this round white wine "delicious" and I think the rest of us agreed. John said it had a great nose and was refreshing. I give it a 6.5.

2. Merlot, Mourvedre
Longevity       Mourvedre, 2008 Livermore, 2% Petite, 1% Syrah; 14.7%, 25 cases, $19 (Livermore)
            Interesting nose. Interesting, hard to describe flavor too. I give it a 6.0. John thought it had more fruit, was less meaty than other Mouvedres. He gave it a 6.5.

R&B                Metronome Merlot, 2007 Towne Ranch, Napa Valley; 14.9%, $18 (Rock Wall, Alameda)
            It was ok. 5.5. John felt it lacked distinguishing characteristics and gave it a 5.0.

3. Misc. Reds
Rock Wall      Rock Star Rouge, Red Blend, 2007, CA 14.6%, 42% Syrah, 37% Temperanillo, 21% Cinsault, $14  (Alameda)
            This blend was acceptable but didn't knock my socks off. I gave it a 5.5. John, on the other hand, said it had racy aromas, it';s the bottle he took home (the Rock Wall Zin being gone), and he gave it a 7.0!

Longevity       Barbera, 2006, Lodi, 13.6%, $18 (Livermore)
            Rich and round for a Barbera. You know how hard it is to find a consistently good Italian wine. 6.0. John: Surprisingly non-acidic for a Barbera, round and full now, though aging may be problematic: 6.5.

Cuda Ridge  Petit Verdot, 2008 Livermore Valley, 15.2%, $32 (Livermore)
            Wow! Bright blackberry nose, bright black-fruit taste, an eye-opener. Mac's favorite of the evening. 7.5. John wasn't as impressed: Lacked the backbone of a really good PV, but very fruit forward; he gave it a 6.5.

4. Cab & Cab Blends
Nottingham   Ralph's Red Blend, 2007, 60% Cab, 40% Merlot; 14.15%, $29 (Livermore)
Cuda Ridge  Cabernet, 2007, Livermore Valley, 12.5%, $30 (Livermore)
Irish Monkey Cabernet, 2006, 'El Dorado Complete, 13.2%, $35 (Oakland)
            These three Cabs were absolutely terrific – everything you want from a Cab. I give Ralph's blend a 6.5; it was just fine. (John: "Zzzzzz! 5.0") The Cuda Ridge was excellent, definitely a 7.0 and worth every penny. (John: Best of the Cabs, with a nice balance – 7.0.) The Irish Monkey, with an extra year under its belt, showed richer, sweeter tastes that IMHO give it an 8.0 and the edge for the evening. John disagreed completely: "A little 'thin,' tasted more like a Merlot to me; 6.0."

Ferrell             Cabernet, 2006, Sean's Vineyard, 14.6%. (Los Altos Hills)
            This is a homemade wine from the Los Altos Hills, and was a perfectly acceptable Cab that had the misfortune to go up against three top-notch examples of the Cab-making art – I give it a 5.5. John: "More interesting than Ralph's Red, but unpolished: 5.0."

5. Bigger Red
JRE                Zinfandel, 2007, St Helena, $12  (Rock Wall, Alameda)
Rock Wall      Zinfandel, 2007 Sonoma Co., a heritage clone; 15.6%, $25 (Alameda)
      Well, you might think you could get a bigger red in a Zin, but after those knockout Cabs, these Zins could do no better than a respectable pair of 6.0 scores – fine Zinfandels with no flaws. John agreed with me on the JRE: Fine but not exceptional – 6.0. But the Rock Wall Zin: "Best wine of the night, impactful. 8.0!" Zowie!

6. Dessert Red
Adams Point California Dessert Wine with Natural Chocolate Flavor, NV, 19%, port-style, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Syrah, with chocolate flavor. $16. (Oakland)
            Not bad – not damned bad at all. The chocolate aromas wafted up from the glass like a dark chocolate bar, and the taste was a nice finish to a terrific evening. 6.0. John: "I detest wines wiht added chocolate, but this smelled better than most: 3.5." Ouch!

Background on the Wineries

Since these are new and little-known wineries, some background may be in order.

Longevity Wines
35 Rickenbacker Circle, Livermore 94550
http://www.longevitywines.com  888-325-9463 or TheLongFamily@longevitywines.com
Tasting room open Sat & Sun noon-5pm. Or call for appointment. 

Longevity is about three years old, a hobby-turned-passion for Phil and Debra Long (Long – Long-evity!). As with so many small Livermore wineries, their tasting room, open most weekends, is small, uncrowded, and friendly – if you show any knowledge and appreciation of wines, you will enjoy Phil and Debra's wonderful examples of the art and discussions of their plans and dreams. I believe their production is under 1,000 cases total, but they have ambitions to grow a lot in the coming few years. Their small-lot wines mostly sell out every year; joining the wine club is a good idea.

Other wines from Longevity:
            Chenin Blanc – One of the few Chenin Blanc makers in California, Longevity's is terrific.
            06 Lodi Barbera, 58 cases, $18
            07 California Cab, Contra Costa, 55 cases, $22
            Contra Costa Syrah, sold out of course.
            07 Lodi Viognier 56 cases $18

Cuda Ridge 
5385 East Ave., Unit B, Livermore 94550   510-304-0914 

Larry and Marge Dino named their winery after Larry's favorite car, the Barracuda! His wines are mainly Bordeaux-style blends. Like Longevity, the Cuda Ridge tasting room is open most weekends, is small and amongst the barrels, and Larry loves to talk about the wines, the philosophy, and their plans to grow their small production much larger. They've just introduced a wine club, which is worth joining.

Cuda Ridge's wines include:
            Livermore Sauvignon Blanc, $18             Livermore Merlot, $22
            Livermore Cab Franc, $26                         Livermore Cab Sauv., $30
            Livermore "Renegade": Zin, $29              Livermore Petit Verdot, $32

Rodrigue Molyneaux
3053 Marina Avenue, Livermore, CA
Tasting Room open weekends 12:30pm - 5:00pm

Amianco white
Cabernet Sauvignon
Primavera Rosa (Cab)
Port (Cab)
Cabiovese (Cab-Sangiovese)
Cabera (Cab Barbera)

The Rock Wall Wine Coop, Alameda
2301 Monarch Street, Suite 300, Alameda, CA 94501
The Tasting Room is open Thursday-Sunday from noon to 5pm

Rock Wall hosts seven small wineries in all, including Carica, Blacksmith, and Virago.

Rock Wall Wines
Rock Wall's own wines, produced by Kent Rosenblum's 26-year-old "cellar rat" daughter, Shauna Rosenblum, and other members of the Rosenblum circle. They make good Zins, of course, given Kent's access to the finest vineyards, but expand also into other wines, including a rare Tannat (that sells out quickly, or we would have included it in this tasting). They like to brand their blends "Rock Star."

             Zinfandel, Sonoma County          Zinfandel, Jesse's Vineyard
             Zinfandel, Reserve, Sonoma       Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands
             Chardonnay, Russian River         Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley
             Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
             Petite Sirah, Dry Creek Valley      Petite Sirah, Mendocino County
             Tannat, Solano County                 Rock Star Blanc (Sauv Blanc, Chard) California
             Rock Star Rouge (red blend), California

Rock Wall also hosts R&B Cellars and JRE, below.

R&B Cellars

Red wines with names with a jazz music theme. About ten years old, apparently started as another partnership between Kent Rosenblum and a winemaking colleague making Cabs. When I first heard of them, their excellent Cabs were selling for under $20; now they have reserve Cabs selling for $50, which was over our price point for this tasting. R&B brands its wines with musical themes, mostly jazz, such as their Swingsville Zin and Metronome Merlot.

JRE    (John Robert Eppler)
Very small lots: Fume Blanc, Zin, Cab, red blends, and a late-harvest Zin. We tried his Zin at this tasting.

Irish Monkey           
1017 22nd Ave – Oakland
http://www.irishmonkey.net/     (510) 915-5463

Loretta Lynch accused her Irish husband, Bob, of having a wine monkey on his back. He had been producing award-winning beers but was determined to shift gears into wine. So they named their small urban winery Irish Monkey. Or so the story goes.

Like many new, small wineries, the Lynches like to distinguish themselves by making offbeat wines, or traditional wines with their own special twist. They produce a number of wines from Portugese grapes, some Italian-grape wines, a pair of Malbec blends, and a sort of variation on port in the form of a Touriga-based wine dosed with brandy and sugar.

    Wines of Irish Monkey:
Torrontes                   Sauvignon Blanc
Chardonnay             Viognier
Sangiovese               Pinot Noir
SyrBec                       (A Syrah-Malbec blend)
MerBec                      (A Merlot-Malbec blend)
Merlot                         Syrah
Primitivo                    Cabernet Franc
Cab Sauvignon        Meritage
Touriga National      Sweet Captain's Table (Touriga, Brandy, Sugar)

Adams Point
Bill Galarneau of Adams Point makes wines from tropical fruit (and port-style dessert wines from grapes). "We specialize in Mango Wine, Mango/Papaya Wine, and Persimmon Wine. Our dessert wines include: Mango Dessert Wine, Persimmon Dessert Wine, Red and White After-Dinner Wine, and Chocolate Dessert Wine." "The wines pair well with Thai, Hawaiian, and Caribbean food, and food from the regions where tropical fruit are grown."

I've had the Mango and the Persimmon; and they are not as bad as you would naturally expect. Fortunately, the Chocolate Dessert Wine is made from actual grapes, though the specific varietal is not mentioned on the site. The facility is in West Berkeley, the exact address not mentioned on the site either, unfortunately.  The easiest way to try his wines is by attending the annual (twice-annual?) East Bay Urban Wine Trail event – details can be found at http://eastbayvintners.com/ .

Los Altos Hills
Ferrell Wines
Patrick Ferrell is a publishing entrepreneur who started the successful GamePro gaming magazine, and founded the annual E3 convention for the console- and PC-gaming industry. Currently he is starting up an activities-based social network called Activnet.com.

One of his hobbies is home winemaking, producing robust Cabs each of the past few years from grapes grown on his property in the Los Altos Hills on the San Francisco Peninsula. The wines are not commercially available, but I thought I would bring an example to our tasting, for the fun of it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Followup Pinot Noir Tasting...

As a followup to our investigation of the Gallo French Pinot that might not actually be a Pinot, I gathered some friends to check the wine and compare it to other inexpensive Pinots.

One taster's comment as soon as he tried the Gallo Red Bicyclette: "Hmm. Lacks varietal character." I swear I didn't prompt him!

We then tried some other cheap Pinots for comparison, a $9 Castle Rock that tasted much better than that; a $9 Australian Little Penguin with a lot of flavor, though more aggressive in style; a $20 Vichon that was dead, dead, dead, though it was only an '06 - surprised the heck out of us. And one of the group brought a Chandon priced around $35 that brought the entire evening to a delightful conclusion!

Conclusions: 1. The Red Bicyclette was marginally drinkable but you couldn't tell what grape(s) it was made from; 2. there are other cheap PNs out there that have more flavor and more Pinot qualities, though none are showstoppers; 3. $9 Castle Rock is as enjoyable as everybody says it was, and easily the best tasting value; 4. It's possible to pay $20 and wish you had a $6 Pinot, and 5. Chandon shows it's possible to pay $35 and get that heartstopping Pinot experience!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Falcor, Girard, Etude--On the Napa & Sonoma Wine Trail with James Jazz King

One great thing about social media is meeting new people. Twitter has earned me a couple of new wine-loving friends, including James Jazz King, a "personal wine educator for hire," whose Twitter handle is @UrWineGuy.

James went up to Napa for a weekend a few months ago to check on a few wineries for his wine-tour business, and invited me to join him. I jumped at the chance, especially since he was testing three wineries I hadn't tried before: Falcor, Girard, and Etude. (He also went to Domaine Carneros but I missed that stop due to map problems combined with my natural stupidity.)

James Jazz King conducts tours of California wine country, and produces wine and food events for companies who want to impress clients with their sophisticated hospitality. This includes corporate wine tastings for conferences, fundraisers, leadership awards, new-product launches, executive retreats, and similar events where the quality of the wine and food must impress. To this end, James has built relationships with top wineries in Sonoma and Napa, as well as the wine areas of Oregon and Washington. He's a graduate of Wharton, and lives in San Diego. He can be reached at his Web site, King Group Events.

I met James and his wife and young daughter at Falcor , which is in the southwest side of Napa Valley. James and his family were charming and welcoming. And the relationships James and his wife have built with the winemakers became apparent right away as we were greeted by Falcor Director of Marketing and Operations Doug Berlogar. Also clear, as we tasted some of Falcor's wines, was the scope of the Kings' knowledge of the wines; they clearly knew what they were talking about.

The Falcor tasting room looks like the board room of an expensive law firm, one that happens to have a winemaking facility through one of the doors. The wines were equally impressive. I believe we tried the $42 2005 Durell Vineyard Chardonnay, which was delicious. We then had the $65 2003 "H" Block Cab (with 2% Merlot, 2% Cab Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot) that knocked my socks off. (That's my wine-blogger technical description.) And we also tasted the $36 2005 Dry Creek Zin (which has 9% Petite Syrah). Also yummy. The Kings chatted about business--the wine business and the tour business.

Next we drove over to Etude Wines in Carneros, just off Highway 121. We tasted a number of their wines and, I have to say, I didn't care for any of them. Isn't that strange? They were all sharp-edged. The Kings, though, seemed to like them; that makes me wonder about the condition of my tastebuds....

We finished up at Girard, whose tasting room is in downtown (so to speak) Yountville, a tiny, charming community in the middle of Napa Valley. The tasting room, just off the main street in a complex of shops, was busy that Saturday afternoon with drinkers and tourists, but we managed to elbow our way to the bar to try some wines that were, I was relieved to find, quite good. (So my tastebuds were functional after all.) The 2007 Girard Artistry blend, Napa, $40, was worth the elbowing; and the 2007 Girard Petite Syrah, Napa also, tasted like a wine that had earned its high ratings -- 93 Points from Wine Enthusiast, 4 Stars from  Restaurant Wine -- by dint of actually tasting good. I liked it.

It was a tasty and educational day with a host clearly knowledgeable and capable. I appreciated his invitation, and suggest you look up James Jazz King when next your company needs to make a good impression at a client or customer event -- or just when you want to take your group on a custom-made, hand-crafted tour of the West Coast's finest wines.